“Black soldiers have been omitted from mainstream history because those who research and write that history are predominantly white, middle-class and educated at Oxford and Cambridge. So they are almost exclusively the sons – and in some cases the daughters – of white colonials whose families were part of the ruling elite when Britain had an Empire. In my experience, these so-called historians have never shown any interest in the story of black people in Britain, and certainly not the two world wars.”
So said historian, Stephen Bourne, talking about his book “Black Poppies” – and something similar could be said about those who sanction official commemorations of WW1. Such claims are backed up by a visit to a typical British bookstore where you will likely find it easier to find a book on the role of animals in WW1 than the role of black or colonial people. This is despite the fact that over a million black and colonial soldiers from Africa, Asia and the Americas fought in WW1 and many more laboured in its cause.
Historians like Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey and David Olusoga in his book, “The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire” which looks at colonial troops, are redressing this gross oversight and revealing stories of institutional racism as well as individual sacrifice and bravery.
The Imperial War Museum London and The Centre for Hidden Histories are holding a free public workshop on “Black People’s Involvement in WW1” on Saturday 15th October 2016. It will be held at the Imperial War Museum London on Lambeth Road, near Elephant & Castle. It is free to register for the event.
The workshop will examine the history of black people’s involvement, both in Britain and from the colonies, and also ways that experiences can be researched through official and private records. How black peoples’ contribution is remembered today will also be discussed in a talk by Patrick Vernon on ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’.
The event will feature talks from historians of Black Britain, Stephen Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey, John Siblon, and Anna Maguire, and social commentator and political activist Patrick Vernon.
Scheduled speakers at the event
Dr Caroline Bressey will talk on ‘Black Britons on both fronts’. She is a lecturer and researcher of the black presence in Victorian and Edwardian London based in the Department of Geography, University College London. She has researched, amongst other areas of Black history, Black women and their experiences in four arenas of Victorian life: institutions, imperial elite society, work and anti-racist politics.
Watch Dr Caroline Bressey talk about some of her research in this mini-lecture from UCL, 2010.
Stephen Bourne will discuss ‘Family, first-hand testimony and local publishing.’ He is a community historian and author of several books on the presence of black people in Britain; his most recent book is Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community & the Great War (The History Press), for which he received the 2015 Southwark Arts Forum Award for Literature.
Anna Maguire, a AHRC Colloaborative Doctoral Award Student at IWM and King’s College, London, will talk about ‘From the Islands of the Sea: Reading West Indian experience during the First World War.’ She has recently completed her thesis: ‘Colonial Cultures and Encounters during the First World War’
John Siblon is a history teacher and part-time PhD student researching commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen at Birkbeck College London. John will speak on ‘Between hierarchy and memory: commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the First World War’.
Patrick Vernon OBE will discuss, ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’. He is a Clore Fellow, Associate Fellow for the Department of History of Medicine at Warwick University; founder of Every Generation Media and 100 Great Black Britons, which develops education programmes, publications and films on cultural heritage and family history.
Professor David Killingray, who will chair the event, is from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, formerly taught at Goldsmiths, London, and has written several books and articles on the two world wars and also the black diaspora.
There will also be the opportunity to find out more about conducting research in this area, learn about IWM’s collections and enjoy free refreshments.
Books currently available in IWM London’s bookshop
“In 1914, there were at least 10,000 black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage, fiercely loyal to their Mother Country. Despite being discouraged from serving in the British Army during World War I, men managed to join all branches of the armed forces, and black communities made a vital contribution, both on the front and at home. By 1918, it is estimated that the black population had trebled to 30,000, and after the war many black soldiers who had fought for Britain decided to make it their home. Black Poppies explores the military and civilian wartime experiences of these men and of women, from the trenches to the music hall. Poignantly, it concludes by examining the anti-black race riots of 1919 in cities like Cardiff and Liverpool, where black men came under attack from returning white soldiers who resented their presence, in spite of what they and their families had done for Britain during the war. The first book of its kind to focus on the Black British experience during World War I; this new offering from Stephen Bourne is fascinating and eye-opening.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review).
“In a sweeping narrative, David Olusoga describes how Europe’s Great War became the World’s War – a multi-racial, multi-national struggle, fought in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe, which pulled in men and resources from across the globe.” (Publisher’s Amazon review)
“Very little attention has been given to black British and West African and Caribbean citizens who lived and worked on the ‘front line’ during the Second World War. Yet black people were under fire in cities like Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Manchester, and many volunteered as civilian defence workers, such as air-raid wardens, fire-fighters, stretcher-bearers, first-aid workers and mobile canteen personnel. Many helped unite people when their communities faced devastation. Black children were evacuated and entertainers risked death when they took to the stage during air raids. Despite some evidence of racism, black people contributed to the war effort where they could. The colonies also played an important role in the war effort: support came from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Nigeria. Mother Country tells the story of some of the forgotten Britons whose contribution to the war effort has been overlooked until now.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review)